Monday, 19 April 2021

Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series




Don’t Deny Your
Eyes To Roam,
This Beautiful,
Bat-Jammed,
Titan Tome!


Batman -
A Celebration Of
The Classic TV Series

by Bob Garcia and Joe Desris
Titan Books ISBN: 9781781167885


Just a quick snip of a review to warble the praises of a beautiful book I received for my birthday this year, the wonderful 2016 publication, Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series (Thanks cousin Steve and Allison). Does what it says on the tin, for sure but, well that’s a good place to start actually, as the gorgeous ‘tin’ in question is a hard bound book presenting a picture of actors Adam West and Burt Ward in their Batman and Robin costumes, nicely spot varnished. Added to this, instead of a regular dust cover we have a dust belt. That is to say, a miniature Batman utility belt, also with some nice spot varnishing highlights on it, wraps around the covers from front to back instead of the traditional dust jacket.

Now, while I would have loved if the book was twice the size and had even more minutia of the show for me to ponder (a sign of a good book, for sure), it’s got a lot of stories, accounts and anecdotes about the production of the three seasons of the Batman TV show, not to mention the tie-in movie, that it certainly enlightened me about a lot of elements of the show I’d not known before.

Continuing the theme of the rhyming couplets of a typical Season 1 or 2 double episode set of titles (the show used to play two nights a week with a cliffhanger at the end of the first of the week’s shows)... such as Episode 21 The Penguin Goes Straight, Episode 22, Not Yet, He Ain’t or Episode 31 Death In Slow Motion, Episode 32 The Riddler’s False Notion...the book is split into lots of mini chapters detailing specific facets of the show and uses similar rhyming couplets for each section title, such as Catwoman Is A Wow, Julie Newmar Take A Bow or Bruce Lee Paid The Set A Visit, Showed Ward His Fighting Spirit. Which is a nice touch.

Following on from an introduction written by Adam West himself, it turns out there’s a lot of information to be found here, most of which is all first hand knowledge garnered from a lot of the show’s stars and production crew from when they were alive and, like I said, most of this is new to me. So you’ll get stuff on script development, screen tests, using discarded props and backgrounds from old Irvin Allen shows, dyeing all the clothes those bright colours, the onomatopoeic typography bursts over the fight scenes, the music of Neil Hefti’s theme and Nelson Riddles scoring. There’s loads of stuff here to please the most avid Batfan.

For instance, did you know that Lyle Wagonner, who people probably best remember for his portrayal of Steve Trevor in the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and The New Adventures Of Wonder Woman TV shows, was actually one of the people shortlisted and screen tested for the role of Batman along with Adam West? Well, yeah okay, maybe you did but it was news to me. Thinking about it and knocking about ten years off of him (from how I remember him)... I can kind of see how that might have worked too. Although, of course, Adam West totally got the special style of the ‘camp’ humour from day one. 

Similar revelations were the fact that producer William Dozier (who you hear from a lot in this book), did the voice over narrations and cliff-hanger questions for the show. He interviewed a lot of people to do it and none of them could get it the way he needed it to be done... until some bright spark realised that Dozier should just do it for the deadline of the pilot and, after that was successful, should just keep doing it.

Another thing is some of the information on legendary martial artist Bruce Lee. Batman paved the way for a TV version of The Green Hornet and, of course, Bruce Lee stars as Kato in that TV incarnation, highlighting the grand nephew of The Lone Ranger (look it up if you don’t believe me, I’m constantly reminding people of this). Now, I’m sure most people know the story of how Bruce Lee colluded with the crew to wind up Burt Ward and make him fearful of his upcoming fight with Kato in the crossover show when Batman and Robin meet The Green Hornet and Kato, which was a well received joke and, yes, that story is confirmed here. However, what I didn’t know was that they’d been trying to get Lee into a TV show for a while and the show which was in development but ultimately turned down for him, while Batman was still being conceived, was Number One Son. This would feature Bruce Lee as, oh yes, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son but as a secret agent. So, yeah, that’s a show I wish they would have made, to be honest.

There is one big error in the book that I found... which always makes me worry in a tome about something I don’t know much about because, who knows what other errors I can’t identify which could have crept in? In a section about the actor playing The Joker in the show, the one and only Cesar Romero, it mentions that his debut feature was the 1933 production The Shadow Laughs, based on the pulp character The Shadow. Something didn’t ring true with that to me so I looked it up and, indeed, the film has nothing to do with the famous ‘Maxwell Grant’ character of The Shadow, from what I can find.

However, this was the only problem I had with this book and I now know cool stuff like the famous Bat-climbs, where various guest stars pop out of the windows and make funny remarks as The Dynamic Duo Bat-walk up the sides of buildings, were just another quick thing to shorten the queue of the ever rising tide of famous actors and actresses who wanted to appear in what was pretty much the hottest show on television. And, bear in mind, this was in the days (and we’re not all that far out of them) that TV was seen as a lesser media that  an actor could be doing and often a bit of a movie career killer. But what everyone forgets is that... with the deadpan humour, the bright colours, the fiendishly ridiculous devices and the leaps in deductive logic... the show was unlike anything ever seen on television before (or since). So they had actors lining up to play parts but, when the time schedules wouldn’t permit, people like Jerry Lewis would pop his head out of a window and deliver some lines, whereas celebrities with a less tight schedule... such as Vincent Price, George Sanders and even director Otto Preminger... would be given the expanded, guest villain of the week spots on the show.

And that’s that. Whether you’re familiar with the TV series and background detail on the show with its various spin offs or not, Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series is an absolutely great book to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with it. It even finishes with a detailed episode guide to the three seasons with short summaries of each episode, which is handy if you need to quickly find or refer to something. A great addition to any bat-lovers book shelf and a solid recommendation from me.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Vast Of Night




A Cayuga Production

The Vast Of Night
USA  2019
Directed by Andrew Patterson
GED Cinema


The Vast Of Night is a film that would have passed me by completely had I not been pointed towards it so... firstly, thanks to Biggles for the recommendation. It’s a shame this isn’t more widely known or available on physical media (I would buy a Blu Ray of this for sure) as it’s one of those damn ‘near perfect’ films which come along every now and again. One of those features that are technically brilliant and actually manages to use the camerawork and editing to really pull an audience into a story.

Well, okay, perhaps story is too strong a word to use here as the film definitely has a 'one note' mystery set in the late 1950s at its heart and the strength of both the arresting visual and audio components coupled with some great performances from the two leads... Jake Horowitz as local, small time radio DJ Everett Sloane and Sierra McCormick as local telephone switchboard operator Fay Crocker... makes for a film which is not overly reliant on its somewhat simple idea, transcending it all by confounding any expectations that this would anything other than humdrum.

Simply put, the film plays out one night in the fictional town of Cayuga (yeah, I know, I’ll get there in a moment, the whole film is littered with these kind of references) and takes place pretty much in real time, as a basketball game in a local high school serves as both an anchoring point and a countdown clock for the one and a half hour the course of events depicted take place. Said ‘incident’ in the film deals with... ‘something over the skies’ during this summer evening and how two friends, Everett and Fay, latch onto a strange sound concurrent with some activity seen by a few people who are out on the streets while the basketball game is in progress. I’ve not headed this review up with a spoiler warning because, in terms of spoilers, the film really is essentially a one trick pony and there’s no real reveal of anything you’re not set up to suspect from the start.

The story is supposed to be inspired by both the Foss Lake Disappearances and the  Kecksburg UFO Incident but, yeah, I couldn’t find too much of a correlation with these so, ‘inspired’ is definitely the word. However, the film does wear it’s science fiction influences on its sleeve right from the outset, when we are treated to a shot of an old TV set from the 1950s which is beginning to play a TV show which is... yeah, well it’s a deliberate parody of the opening of the old The Twilight Zone TV show called, in this iteration, Paradox Theatre and they’ve even got an actor called Mark Silverman doing the opening narration in the exact same tone and style of delivery as Rod Serling’s intros for the show (indeed, a quick check on the IMDB shows that the actor also provided the voice of Rod Serling in the recent 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone, as it turns out). It’s a nicely done parody and then we find the title of the movie, The Vast Of Night, is the title of the episode we are watching. Shakespeare afficionados may recognise that phrase as being from The Tempest, which makes perfect sense here because one of the most successful 1950s science fiction movies of that decade was Forbidden Planet, which was a science fiction variant of The Tempest.

We then slow zoom into the action on the black and white TV and into the film which then opens up into widescreen and full colour imagery. Here’s the thing though, the film is split up almost into little mini chapters to begin with and, when one sequence changes we zoom back out and watch it back as a black and white image on the TV each time before re-entering the picture. We are right from the start introduced to the fictional town of Cayuga and, again, any fans of The Twilight Zone will recognise this as Rod Serling’s production company Cayuga Productions.

The film starts off by catching us up to the main characters in a twenty minute sequence where the camera follows Everett setting up the sound system for the high school game and then both he and Fay as he teaches her how to use her new tape recorder. It’s a frenetic and brilliant opening and, I’d like to say it’s all done in one take but I don’t think it is... I was too drawn in to take much notice but I believe, when I looked into it, that the longest take is a ten minute shot in the next mini chapter of Fay at her switchboard so, there must have been a few cuts in this opening sequence (there were, I watched it again when i showed the movie to someone else a few days later). The pace is deliberately more static (ish) for the switchboard sequence which makes up the next ten or so minutes of the film and then, when Fay opens the door of her room, she kind of frees the camera which picks up the pace on its own, makes it’s way all over to the other side of town in one shot, checks out the game and then travels over to Everett’s nearby radio broadcasting room. The call sign of the radio station, WOTW, might be a puzzle in terms of the region it’s supposed to be operating from... until the viewer maybe realises that it’s also the initials of the title of one of the most famous, inadvertent radio hoaxes of all time... Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of H. G. Wells' War Of The Worlds.

This is a film with absolutely brilliant camerawork which sometimes, as in that sequence, takes on an almost narrative voice and at other times, more often, focuses on bringing you the characters and giving them room to breathe as you watch the performances. Indeed, it’s an old trick but the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on some of his ‘static’ shots to pull you into the characters and make you feel even more like a fly on the wall. He’s got a good thing going here with a combination of different styles for different uses but the shots are always smooth and controlled, I don’t recall seeing much hand-held stuff here at all, even during the scenes where there is a lot of running going on... Fay has a quirk where she forgets that you can just get in a car and go somewhere, always running somewhere as a result (which I guess you can kind of do in a small town).

Another thing the director does, which is absolutely terrific, is when a ‘caller’ who tells one of those great “the Government are collaborating with the aliens” stories, gets a lot of airtime and instead of sticking with the image of Everett listening to his voice on the air, the screen blacks out completely for a few minutes (a couple of times) so we can experience the story with just the sound alone, like a radio audience would. This is a great and brave moment for the film as far as I’m concerned (and for the director or whoever had this idea) and I don’t remember, off hand, seeing this done before.

And it’s the little things which also help give the illusion that the film is very much a 1950s thing. Such as the language used by the characters. Not many period movies think about the way language can change these days but expressions like “Double Dealing Devil Dog” and “Ras My Berries” give it a real historic feel and kind of act as verbal anchor points to ground the movie in its time frame and I enjoyed the way the director (who also wrote this under a pseudonym) uses repeat stories like ‘the squirrel who bit through the wire’ incident to give a credibility to the feeling of ‘ordinary people living in a an ordinary town’ sensibility, which is shot through the narrative. I also loved the ‘future predictions’ that Fay tells Everett about from the time and their ‘almost but not quite right’ nature, which were indeed culled from issues of Mechanix Illustrated of that period. This itself says a lot about the two characters, with Everett seeming a bit sceptical and so gives a bit of foreshadowing to the attitude of the two of them later, with Fay being quick to embrace the obvious phenomena on which the film is centred while Everett is much more inclined to speculate that... “it’s the Soviets”.

There were two moments which did manage to pull me out of my transfixed state and pop me out of the movie at different points in the film. The first was when, as Everett walks Fay to her switchboard and the two are getting ‘fake interview’ footage from the people they meet on her new tape recorder, one of the families in the car mentioned the recent incident of the Grimaldi’s. Well of course I pricked my ears up straight away at this because, as soon as they said it, I could hear Kevin McArthy’s voice as Dr. Miles Benwell saying... “And so I ran. I ran as little Jimmy Grimaldi ran the other day.” Was this a reference to the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (reviewed by me here). Well, I looked it up and, you bet, in my excitement at hearing the name Grimaldi I missed some references to the fictional town of Santa Mira, which is where the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers takes place. Another of many references by the director to 1950s sci-fi movies.

The other thing which jumped me right out of the picture was when the camera is first in the radio station. I’d assumed from The Twilight Zone parodies that the film was set in the late 1950s and the director himself says the events of the film take place in 1958. All fine and dandy but I spotted the prominent placement of the vinyl soundtrack album to Walt Disney’s Peter Pan in a few shots. Okay, so fine that Peter Pan was a 1953 movie but, something rang wrong here and, yeah, it turns out that the soundtrack album in question wasn’t released until 1960, over a year after the time setting for this movie. So, yeah, while I’d like to believe this was  the director practicing something I read about in the early 1980s called ‘controlled anachronism’... I suspect he just made a mistake and didn’t realise the album wasn’t released until later, in this case.

The music on this one by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer sounds strange and ethereal and really helps to sell the atmosphere of the movie... especially in some of the ‘action scenes’ (for want of a better term) towards the end of the picture. It also doesn’t oversell the emotion, instead counteracting it in some ways, almost to get the audience through some scenes which might otherwise have been a little oversold with the wrong musical approach. There’s also some nice use of camerawork towards the end, where the placement of the camera obscuring one of the characters with another standing in front of them, causes anxiety in an almost unbearably intense suspense sequence by a nice piece of misdirection which, actually, foreshadows to a degree, the very last shot of the movie. So that was nicely done.

Actually, my main piece of negative criticism also comes from this sequence which, I won’t spoil here but will say there are a couple of shots which I think should not have made it into the final cut. We don’t need to see ‘the things’ in question in what has so far been an incredibly subtle film in terms of manipulating audiences to the obvious conclusion. Sometimes, as is the case here, less would have been much more and I really could have done without actually seeing what is causing the strange events here. Now, it might have been that the internet station who are distributing the movie (and holding off from putting out a proper physical release) may have insisted on seeing the thing in question or it might directly be something which could be laid at the feet of the director, I don’t know. But it does kind of take the edge off of the last couple of minutes of the movie... which still has a perfect last shot relating to a story told to the film’s two main protagonists by an old lady in an earlier section of the film. It would have been much better left to the imagination of the audience I think but, I suspect there were commercial reasons necessitating the inclusion of a couple of ‘model shots’ so, I won’t complain too bitterly here, especially when the rest of The Vast Of Night is an absolutely brilliant and spellbinding experience which I think many students of film might want to take a look at. Certainly a movie I’d strongly recommend to just about everyone and I’m glad I was pointed towards this one.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Half Way To Hell




Mexican Stand Off

Half Way To Hell
Directed by
Victor Adamson as D. Dixon
(and Al Adamson, uncredited)
USA 1960 IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: I guess, technically this thing has spoilers on it.

Well, if there’s one thing that starting to delve into Al Adamson’s body of work has done for me for certain then it’s made me trust the IMDB even less than I did before. I don’t know who’s filling this stuff in on Adamson’s films but, at the very least, their interpretation of the facts seems to be at odds with what you can see with your own eyes in Severin's amazing box set, Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection.

For example, Al Adamson is in this as, it turns out, the main bad guy. However, the character name listed for him in the IMDB is of another major character in the movie... who is also listed as another character. Seriously IMDB, sort yourselves out. I’m used to looking for movies which have no entry or a bare bones of an entry or often no information about a release whatsoever but, presenting the wrong information goes one step further. For something which is supposed to be an industry standard database to impart the facts about movies, the IMDB is pretty much the only game in town but it’s seriously lacking. Anyway... back to our main feature.

This is the first (and probably the last) time that Half Way To Hell has seen the light of day on home video. It’s been painstakingly restored as best they could do it by Severin... from what they could get. So, barring a couple of cuts where the odd snippet of dialogue may be missing along with some questionable damage to the film stock, this is pretty much the whole thing.

And it’s a black and white Western made by Adamson’s dad. Half Way To Hell is the last of literally hundreds of films that Victor Adamson produced and directed since 1910 (and after this he was still turning up in things as an actor and, not just in his son’s pictures, presumably because he was so well respected in the business). It’s written and co-produced by Al Adamson and, like I said, stars the younger Adamson as the lead villain.

And... it’s kinda terrible but also amazingly interesting.

Shot in black and white but in a widescreen aspect ratio, the films plays like a typical 1940s Monogram or Republic Western but, perhaps, with not quite the same high energy. Still, it has fairly fast plotting, the odd fist fight and a little intrigue on board. It also, I think, seems to be making a political point with its pro-Mexican uprising stance which, I suspect, was an unusual thing for some of the Westerns being made at the time.

The story is of a Mexican lady called Maria, played by Caroll Montour (the film is narrated by her as a voice-over as well) and her friend Joanne (played by Shirley Tegge, the final role in a very short career). They are trying to get across the border and out of Mexico to flea Maria’s former boyfriend Escobar (played by Lyle Felice), the leader of the group of outlaws who are orchestrating a revolution and fighting for the freedom of Mexico (as they see it). She wants nothing more to do with him and so they, with their armed escort, are getting out while the getting’s good. They pick up a hitchhiking prospector on the way, Jeff played by David Lloyd, who is right away set up as the hero of the tale, with Escobar firmly highlighted, at this stage of the game at least, as the villain.

Unfortunately, Lloyd is left for dead along with all the others that Al Adamson as Slade (billed as Rick Adams) guns down with his gang, on orders to take the girls back to Escobar. However, in the words of a famous villain from a well known space fantasy franchise, Slade and the gang want to ‘alter the deal’ and change the terms of their agreement by ransoming the women back to Escobar instead.

Slade and another gang member go to make some unsuccessful negotiations with the Mexican leader while, back from the dead, Jeff (the hero of the piece) returns and guns down, with the help of Maria’s new romantic interest gang turncoat, the remaining outlaws. About this time Slade catches up to them but then they are all caught and taken back to Escobar. There’s a whip fight between Escobar and Maria’s new guy, then another between Escobar and Jeff. Then Escobar sees the error of his ways and releases them all but Slade catches up with them after they leave so he can steal Jeff’s gold.

Yeah, it gets twisty and turny and there’s not a lot of great acting going on. Maria’s narrative seems to be striving to capture the hearts of a sympathetic Mexican audience but I don’t know if this film had much effect as a political bullet. However, a couple of really interesting things happen that  quite surprised me. The first and main one being that, in a fight with Slade, ten minutes before the narrative’s conclusion, Jeff the hero (who has literally just become romantically entangled with Maria’s friend Joanne) is punched off a cliff by Slade and falls to his death. David Lloyd seems to be one of those actors who has the uncanny power to let his bones turn to jelly and do a fair imitation of a flopsy dummy that has been dropped off the cliff instead. There seem to be a lot of those ‘actors’ in Adamson movies so far, I’ve noticed. ;-) End of the hero character and, yeah, wasn’t expecting that so it was a nice rug pull moment, far from the formulaic movie which houses it.

The other thing is that, by the end, Maria dumps her new boyfriend, decides that Escobar is okay after all and goes off to help fight in the revolution with him. Now you'll know, if you read this blog regularly, that I’m completely clueless about political issues but this seems to me to be, I dunno, some kind of bold statement and, again, not the kind of ending I would associate with those old oaters, to be honest. So, while it’s all humdrum but fairly watchable stuff for the most part, I found it to be a lot more interesting than I had at first expected it to be.

The framing in some of the shots is okay too and there are some high points. The film starts off with a really nice, speedy shot of the Mexican band of ‘revolutionaries’ riding their horses with a dog running at high speed between them and the camera and, well... cute dog. I like dogs. This was the absolute best thing in the movie for me. More shots of dogs running please studios!

Other than that, there are some really bad things about the film too. There’s a scene towards the end where it looks like Al Adamson’s character has been added in insert shots to maybe clarify some of the action or possibly to pad the time (the film runs for an hour and six minutes). So in the master shots, Slade has a nice bit of stubble under his chin. However, some of the closer shots of him in one scene have him looking almost unrecognisable as the character... with either too much fuzzy stubble of almost bear-like proportions or, even, clean shaven in another shot a few seconds later. So, yeah, definitely reshoots of insert scenes on different days I would guess. Also, in one scene where the romantic relationship between Jeff and Joanne is being superfluously developed, I’m pretty sure I can hear an aeroplane or possibly a car engine in the background sound for a few seconds so, yeah, I suppose not much, if any, re-dubbing was done in this one and the ‘wild sound’ tracks were relied on pretty much throughout. I guess that’s cheaper, right?

So, yeah, once again I’m left with a film which I didn’t think I was going to get much out of but which turned out to be entertaining enough and had some unexpected moments which I’m not going to forget in a hurry. For some reason, this Severin box set is rekindling my enthusiasm with film somewhat and, although Half Way To Hell is certainly not a great movie, or even a good one, I liked it fine and I appreciate Severin’s great efforts to get this one in a half way watchable state for people. It’s a good time to enjoy films. I suspect, when physical media finally dies, that options like seeing films of this nature just won’t be there for an audience so, yeah, make hay while the sun still shines, is my advice.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Satan's Slave




Slave Regina

Satan's Slave
UK 1976
Directed by Norman J. Warren
Indicator Ray Zone B


You know, I’d only seen one Norman J. Warren film before this first time watch.* However, since that other film, Inseminoid, holds a special place in my heart due to circumstances surrounding its release (I’ll get to that when I review it for this blog), I thought pursuing the recent Indicator Blu Ray boxed edition of five of this director’s films (including Inseminoid), was a good idea. Indeed, it turns out that in the case of this film, Satan’s Slave, it’s good that this is my first experience of it because it seems that the previous UK releases of it were cut down to something approximating the original ‘X’ certificate theatrical release. Somehow (and good on them), Indicator have been allowed to include a full on ‘director’s cut’ with the sex, nudity and violence enhanced even more than what the film-makers were allowed to get away with back in the day.

The film starts off strongly with a nice, strong graphic line drawing of a face which goes through a few transformations before it’s a skull with bulging eyeballs... then a cross and then various cards from a Tarot deck before returning to the bloodshot eyeball skull thingy (as is the technical term for this), all accompanied by composer John Scott’s wonderful score. Then we have a preliminary opening where a naked girl, played by one of the producers as the actress didn’t show up on set, is sacrificed in some kind of satanic ritual (including a nice ‘bloody eye’ effect reminiscent of some of those Hammer films where Christopher Lee played Dracula). Since Satan doesn’t actually appear in the film and I don’t remember the devil getting much of a shout out, I’m assuming the robes, blood and general nakedness are the only real reference to which the film’s title can allude. The main masked/robed priest doing the deed is, you can totally hear from his voice, played by Michael Gough so, when he comes into the main body of the story a little later, it’s no real surprise that he is just as much a threat as the character of his son Martin, payed by Stephen Yorke. And we also get a scene where Martin murders one of his lovers (he seems to have a few on the go at the same time) in a protracted sequence where he non-consensually smothers her to unconsciousness, ties and undresses her on his bed, then threatens the young lady with scissors before letting her go... only to change his mind by splitting her head in between a door and its frame before stabbing her.

The plot involves main protagonist Catherine, played by Candace Glendenning, who is accompanying her parents to visit her previously anonymous uncle, a day or two before her birthday. The car crashes (well it’s just a little bump, really) a few yards from their destination, a big country house. After Catherine gets out of the car to get help from her uncle for her parents in the front of the vehicle, the car inexplicably explodes. The uncle, his son Martin and Martin’s lover, Frances, played by Barbara Kellerman , take her in to recuperate for a few days. However, Catherine is prone to premonitions and visions, which makes sense since it turns out she is a direct descendent of some kind of witch from hundreds of years before. Michael Gough’s character has already sacrificed his wife to have said witch reborn and, although she doesn’t know it yet, Catherine is earmarked to be the next 'stab' at resurrection fodder unless she can escape.

It’s also nice to see former Doctor Who companion to William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, Michael Craze, as Catherine’s boyfriend. Alas, he only has two scenes because his second appearance has him taken over psychically by the long distance but, apparently mesmerising, mind powers of Michael Gough’s character, compelling him to throw himself from the roof of a block of flats with a rather grisly aftermath.

Now, I’m used to seeing British horror films by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon studios but this really is a proper piece of trashy exploitation with a UK flavour to it and it’s a very strong and entertaining work, to be honest. In fact, I’d say it’s a lot better than much of the US stuff I’ve seen in a similar vein, to tell the truth. It’s got lashings of nudity, sex and gore as part of its genetic make up and Warren seems to have no trouble capitalising on all these factors to make the film really work. Indeed, I was somewhat taken aback when the heroine of the film stabs an antagonist directly in the eyeball and we see it go in and then we get a few aftermath shots of the nail file she used still lodged in the guy’s eyeball. Something which the majority of directors mostly cut away from and it’s rare to see something this strong since Dali and Bunuel dissected a lady’s eyeball at the opening of their silent masterpiece Un Chien Andalou in 1929.

In a similar vein, although not as impactful and probably not the first time this was done, the moment when a door swings back to reveal a young lady hanging from the door and held there by the big carving knife which has gone through the front of her mouth and out the back of her head before being embedded into the wooden panel, must have been a few years early, at the time, before this kind of reveal became a more common factor in various American slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s (not a genre I get on with particularly... I prefer a well shot Italian giallo to those kinds of movies).

What also really works about the film, though, is the way some of the shots are designed. The colours are quite a bit more muted or greyer than you might see in a Hammer film of around the same time but the director more than makes up for it by getting creative with some of his framing, especially since his modus operandi seems to be to just start off with a static screen in which a character is seen and then moving the camera with that character in whichever direction they are going. So, sure, standard stuff in that respect but he manages to do some nice things visually which lift the sequences and it’s exactly the kind of stuff I like...

For example, one scene shows Catherine sitting alone in a room on a chair. She gets up and starts walking to the left of shot with the camera moving on her to keep her in the centre of the frame until she comes to a stop in front of a mirror. A she moves in front of the mirror, Stephen walks into the reflection of the mirror and comes to a stop opposite her (his real self out of frame entirely, of course) to start a conversation up. Another sequence has Frances wearing a nice purple and blue hotch potch of a garment but she’s standing in front of a painting of a lady wearing the exact same kind of purple tones. It’s all nice stuff and it’s this kind of thing which really contributes to the overall entertainment value of the film... for me at least.

One slight cliché is when composer Scott uses a kind of rip off of Bernard Herrmann’s classic ‘stab music’ from Psycho, when ever somebody crosses paths with a knife or, indeed, nail file or similarly pointy object. It’s a bit of a steal in terms of the way it borrows from Herrmann’s masterpiece but heck, even the great Jerry Goldsmith did a similar thing once (in Coma) so I can certainly cut this composer some slack here.

Satan’s Slave is packaged as part of the Indicator box set Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren 1976-1987 and, as you would expect from such a great boutique label, they’ve not only given us a proper, uncut version of the film for the first time ever in the UK but also put some great extras with it, which include a couple of commentary tracks (one with the composer), outtakes and deleted scenes, a making of featurette, a chat with the composer (who actually plays a part of the main theme on a piano for us) and an interesting comparison featurette on the censorship issues of the film. I was really impressed with this set and, I have to say, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the movies in this collection sometime soon. 

*Since reviewing the movies in this boxed edition, I also saw his earlier film
Her Private Hell, which explains why that review beat these to the site.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Tales Of The Shadowmen 16 - Voire Dire




 

 

If I Were A Richleau

Tales Of The Shadowmen
Volume 16 - Voire Dire

Edited by Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier
Black Coat Press ISBN: 978-1612279107


For this very short look at the sixteenth volume in the Tales Of The Shadowmen collections, Voire Dire, I am once again about 16 months late in reviewing it. This is because of the December publication dates which leave me a year behind on these (I like to read them over the Christmas season). And, like all of them, this latest selection of short tales of famous fictional characters teaming up or crossing paths with one another is a bit of a hit and miss affair. For me, this year, it’s rather more of a miss but, well... we all have our favourites.

Of the fourteen stories that make up this year’s anthology, I will single out a few of which I was somewhat entertained by. The Peculiar Cats Of The Sea Of Dreams by Mathew Baugh is something which I would have found dull had it not been for my re-reading of the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft last year (reviewed here). I was quite up for it now, though, as a variety of characters are assisted by Randolph Carter in the dream kingdom in which he is known to be found... along with yet another incident with those powerful, battling cats which often come to the aid of their friend.

It’s often the case that I am most entertained by the stories about characters I know nothing of and I don’t know who the main protagonists from at least three sources in Nathan Cabaniss’ story Rage Of Terror are... so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that one so much. I was, of course, familiar with the main antagonist of that story, as Fantômas makes his first (but by no means his last) appearance in this volume. It was also nice to spot a very young Kojak as a background character rookie cop (given his first lollipop in one of his two throw away appearances here) and also how the tale turned into an alternative origin story for Batman.

There’s a nice Rouletabbille tale by Martin Gately, which serves as a sequel/finale to some others which have appeared sporadically in the Tales Of The Shadowmen series and also a nice futuristic sequel story to one in another volume by Nigel Malcolm where, in a world modelled after Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, The Nyctalope and Sexton Blake hack wall street and offer an exit from under their foes for the Frankenstein monster and its wife, the replicant Rachel from the aforementioned film. There’s even a nice moment in this tale where we find out the sad, future fate of the source of Doc Savage’s gold.

Captain Nemo appears in two tales... one by Travis Hiltz opposite characters such as Captain Haddock (from the TinTin graphic albums) and the Dread Pirate Roberts (from The Princess Bride?) and another, much more interesting one which kind of breaks the rules of appearing in a volume of these specific collections in that it only features one set of characters. I’m guessing that they needed a story to make up the space for this volume because its also a tale which has been published before in a different collection. This one, by Jean-Pierre Laigle purports to be (and of course it’s not) a formerly unpublished chapter from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and it involves the good captain telling one of his new guests of the time that the Nautilus was teleported by accident out of the ruins of Atlantis and into deep space... and how the Captain managed to get himself, his crew and his vessel back to the safety of the waters of Earth.

There’s an interesting story by Joseph Gibson where The Falcon from the 1940s, set in the 1960s and fully aware of his ‘fictional’ on screen exploits, teams up with his brother, among others, to take on Fantômas but, I was somewhat confused by the whole affair because, though it was somewhat entertaining, it’s also a fact that The Falcon’s older brother met his death in one of the earliest movies and his brother took over. What the George Sanders version is doing still alive to seek the assistance of the Tom Conway version (who was also Sanders brother in real life) is anybody’s guess.

Two more I’ll mention... both somewhat problematic for different reasons.

One of these is the very short story The Replacement by Xavier Mauméjean. In it, Bruce Wayne goes to a meeting with Doc Savage and The Shadow to seek their blessing at the start of his crime fighting career. On the way out from his meeting in the Empire State Building, he bumps into Britt Reid (The Green Hornet) and Kato, who then go up to the 86th Floor for, presumably, a similar meeting and, I have to say, I really didn’t understand the implications of some of the comments made at this meeting.

The last one I’ll specifically mention is The Stone of Solomon by David L. Vineyard. This is an exciting tale of John Silence teaming up with Dennis Wheatley’s Duc de Richleau character but, alas, the regular introduction to the story tips its hat that the version of Richleau present for the majority of the story is not who he seems. Since the reveal at the end of the short is very protracted and teased out, one wonders why the writer should have bothered when we know which character the story is supposed to be about in the tale and that, since he’s not mentoned once in the narrative until the end of the story, it’s obviously him masquerading as Richleau in this one.

And that’s about it for Tales Of The Shadowmen 16 - Voire Dire. More characters abound and cross paths... some of whom I know very little such as Darkman and Gordon Gekko (I’ve not seen their respective movies) and others I am more familiar with such as Arsene Lupin or Anne Rice’s vampire character Lestat. There’s also a very entertaining and thorough version of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Jane Greystoke (formerly Jane Porter before she married Tarzan) and even a couple of relatives of famous characters, such as the sons of Professor Challenger and Robur The Conquerer.

Actually, I guess I was about 50/50 with this volume which, I guess is not a bad batting average considering the number of writers and the considerable number of character appearances and references which are scattered among the tales. Once again, I’ll look forward to receiving what would have been the December 2020 edition this coming Christmas release and hopefully, fingers crossed, get around to sharing my thoughts with you on that one in about a year from now.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Phantom Of The Opera




Note Unquote

Phantom Of The Opera
USA 1943 Directed by Christy Cabanne
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B


As far as The Phantom Of The Opera in the movies goes, there’s the amazing 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney playing the titular character of Erik... and then there’s everything else. And everything else loses hands down to the Chaney version, this one included. Of the four movie versions I’ve personally seen, only the 1925 version comes close to capturing the proper tone of Gaston Leroux’s novel, originally serialised in a magazine. The pulpy, adventure elements coupled with the creeping terror of the main antagonist are best captured in that one and of those I’ve seen... which include that one, this 1943 version, the 1962 Hammer films version and, of course, the one which I will always think of, broken heartedly, as Dario Argento’s worst movie (not to be mistaken for his fantastic movie called Opera), the original will always be best.

I really don’t count The Phantom Of The Opera as a horror story... it’s more a thriller, to be fair but, I’m including it in my rewatch of the Universal Classic Monsters films because it’s always included in their basic DVD and Blu Ray starter sets and, well, I just thought I’d give it another go.

Now, Universal had been trying to remake a new version of The Phantom Of The Opera for quite a few years since their original version but this one, re-titled Phantom Of The Opera, finally came together for them in ‘43. You can tell they considered it a prestige picture because, unlike any of their other ‘classic monster’ films, this one was shot in Technicolor (please excuse the American spelling but, it’s a brand name, what can you do) as opposed to the monochromatic mayhem with which their horror pictures were usually presented in. Not sure this was the best choice but, hey ho, that’s what they did.

What they also did was spend well over half the budget of the picture resurrecting some of the old sets from the 1925 movie and soundproofing them for use in talkies. So, you know, this was something of an important project to them.

The film stars Claude Rains as Erique Claudin and, he certainly attracts the sympathy of the audience from the outset but... I’m not sure that’s really what the character is supposed to do, to be honest. The understudy opera singer whom he promotes with his murderous threats to others is played by Susanna Foster and, bizarrely, she has two love interest characters in this who are constantly competing to be in her favour, making up some of the film’s comic relief. And, yes, you have to wonder why The Phantom Of The Opera needs any comic relief but... well, they obviously thought it did.

One male lead is the main male star of the opera and, to play him, the producers chose Nelson Eddy. Yeah, that Nelson Eddy, of Jeanette MacDonald fame. The other main lead, played by Edgar Barrier, is a policeman so, yeah, the writers can get these two guys wandering the catacombs of the Opera House in an attempt to find their sweetheart when the time comes... in a far from exciting or even lengthy sequence.

Right from the outset of the film, when the titles proudly but incorrectly proclaim the film is Based on the composition Phantom Of The Opera by Gaston Leroux, leaving off the word The from the novel’s title, they start to get things wrong. Then, a rather long lead in and heavy handed ‘origin’ story for The Phantom is created and explored and, really, it’s just a little tedious. The opening of the picture starts off with a lot of fluid camera movement which is surprisingly dynamic for the period but, honestly, there are so many opera sequences which do nothing to move the story on that it just gets very boring right from the outset. I think the first five minutes has no dialogue at all other than the singing of the opera singers... it doesn’t really work, even with the very impressive camerawork thrown in.

The actors are all great and some of the dialogue is okay but, with the amount of ‘lurking’ without doing much other than as a silhouette in the background of scenes that Claude Rains does here, it never really gets even remotely creepy or chilly in terms of atmosphere and, much as I love seeing these actors working together - they have some good chemistry - it all just seems very dull and plodding and, although it’s not the worst version of The Phantom Of The Opera I’ve seen (sorry Dario), it’s really not something I could sit through as many times as the other Universal monster movies of the period.

Jack Pearce’s make-up for The Phantom’s disfigured face is pretty much just burns down the side of his face (despite having a whole tray of etching acid thrown all over him) and, while that was probably quite gruesome for a 1943 movie, this is nothing like the peeled back skull of a face that was a characteristic of the character in the original novel, made famous by Lon Chaney, The Man Of A Thousand Faces, when he made his version (his, by now famous, son was considered for this role for a while but, obviously, that didn’t happen).

And I don’t have much more to say on this one, in actual fact. If you’ve never seen a version of The Phantom Of The Opera then probably don’t start with this version (although the colours and costumes are good)... definitely bypass this and go straight for the silent one if you want a more interesting, dynamic take on the story which is a whole lot more in keeping with the source material than a good many of the adaptations of this work over the decades... including this one.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Psycho-A-Go-Go/Fiend With The Electronic Brain/Blood Of Ghastly Horror




Echo Of Terror

Psycho-A-Go-Go
1965 (1961) 84 minutes

Fiend With The Electronic Brain
1965 (1961) 97 minutes

Blood Of Ghastly Horror
(aka The Man With The Synthetic Brain)
1967 (1971) 86 minutes

USA Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Films Blu Ray Zone A


Okay... I’ve dispensed with my usual punny title for this review in memoriam of a film which never made it to the screen and no longer exists in its original form. Early in his career, Al Adamson directed a ‘jewel heist gone wrong’ picture called Echo Of Terror but it didn’t get a release. From then on things get complicated and it’s why I’m reviewing what seems, at first glance, to be three films on here rather than just the usual one. Please let it be noted that the dates above are the IMDB ones followed by the dates that Severin give the productions (which, as you can see, are completely different release years)... so, I’m not sure when these things got actual releases but you can see ‘roughly’ when they were released.

Adamson was advised to spice up Echo Of Terror a little and so he inserted some go-go dancers and developed the lead actress character further than in the original version of the film. This release, Psycho-A-Go-Go, is so called in reference to the character of Joe Corey (played with relish by Roy Morton), who is a man who displays ‘turn on a dime’ violent behaviour traits and who kills a few people in gruesome ways in order to try and locate the jewels he and his colleagues lost in a failed heist, before terrorising a man’s wife and child and... yeah, okay, I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Anyway, Psycho-A-Go-Go played at some drive-ins but didn’t get a lot of success so, in an attempt to sell it to another investor, Adamson was asked if he could somehow turn it into a science fiction movie. So... he enticed John Carradine and one other, plus two of the original actors back (four actors in total account for the sequences in question) and filmed some footage which turned it into something resembling science fiction (again, read on to the individual reviews below and I’ll get there). This version was called Fiend With The Electronic Brain. Still with me?

Then, much later, Adamson was persuaded that he might be able to get some mileage out of a horror film version of this so, he jettisoned half of the already augmented version (but still kept most of the Carradine scenes) and used the remaining footage as unbelievably long flash back sequences inside a new framework story in which he cast a number of actors, including his wife/muse and regular actress Regina Carrol, to construct a totally different narrative. Well, apart from the bits which are totally the same... which accounts for about half the movie. This time around it's very much in the schlocky horror movie vein of the times and the new title for this bizarre hybrid became Blood Of Ghastly Horror.

So, yeah, like I said, complicated but what I’ll do is I’ll review each version in turn and hopefully, by the end of it, it will make more sense to you. These versions of the movie are all presented on Disc 2 of the wonderful Severin boxed edition of Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection.

Psycho-A-Go-Go
The film starts off with an extended and presumably added scene of Tacey Robbins playing Linda Clarke, singing at the nightclub she works in, backed by a guitar group and some wonderfully enthusiastic go-go dancers. Then we go into the failed bank heist, which includes director Al Adamson in an uncredited part. He doesn’t have more than ten minutes in the film though as the Joe Corey character shoots him in the face and leaves him dead at the scene while they try and make their escape. An innocent man on the street accidentally makes off with the half a million in jewels which were temporarily dumped in the back of his truck and he goes home to meet his wife, Linda. Yeah, that’s right, he’s the husband of the nightclub singer at the start and he takes Linda and her daughter out to the venue to watch the performance, giving the child a 'singing minstrel’ doll for her Birthday.

Unbeknown to him, his daughter has discovered the jewels which he wasn’t even aware of and she hides them in her doll. Anyway, later on, after his wife takes his daughter away on holiday, taking a greyhound to some mountainous territory, Corey and his gang catch up with him (the psycho killed the secretary of the firm where the robbery took place and got his truck plates and address from the office). They grill him, find out from a girl at the club (who Corey also kills) where his wife and daughter have gone and then Corey takes the boss’ plane to get ahead of the two ladies and meet them at the other end... where he proceeds to terrorise them for information too. Lots of twists and shenanigans and the film climaxes in an extended chase scene among the snowy mountains, where Linda’s husband and their cop buddy rescue her. Corey, the psycho, plunges to his death after taking two gun shots.

And the film is kinda terrible but, you know what? It’s really watchable and I can see why some distributors thought Adamson had it in him to be a good director. The cinematographer on this version is a young Vilmos Zsigmond before he got famous in his profession and it really shows. Between him and Adamson, the movie... despite the damage to the print (as always, Severin have done their best with multiple elements)... actually looks quite good and I actually found myself riveted to the screen. A lot of the actors can’t act, for sure, but some of them can, especially Roy Morton, who makes a wonderfully unstable personality in the lead villain role. There’s some really intense silent movie acting from him on close ups of his face as he strangles the lady from the nightclub which really gives the film a huge dose of insanity when it calls for it. Also, the cop friend, played by Joey Benson, turns in a nice, wise guy performance and also saves the day at the end of the flick, shooting Corey twice when called for.

There are some nice compositions, sometimes using vertical splits and other times finding ways to make the framing interesting. For example there’s a nice shot where Corey is grilling the nightclub girl for information in her apartment and there is a huge mirror on the right hand side of the screen. They turn away from it and face it in various combinations but, no matter where we are in that particular shot with them, we can always see both the front and backs of their heads... it’s a nice set up.

It’s one of those films which, despite when it was made, feels like it’s halfway between two decades in terms of cinematic style... a bit like how Dr. No feels like it’s almost into the full on James Bond film formula but also still feels half mired in the romantic fifties. This film gave me the exact same vibe, where all these actors and actresses have a kind of look to them like they’re stepping right out of the 1950s but, actually, the dialogue and attitudes of some of the characters are at odds with that. I actually liked this version and would be happy to watch it again. Alas, I kind of did... twice more but, for me, Psycho-A-Go-Go is the best version of this movie in this collection. So, on to...

Fiend With The Electronic Brain
Okay, so this is the exact same film but with three major differences which really balloon out the running time. These are three inserted scenes starring John Carradine. The first two scenes which are spliced in at various places in the narrative include Joey Benson back as the detective, who goes to see John Carradine as Dr. Howard Vanard, the head of neuroscience in the local hospital. I know he must be a neuroscientist because he is pouring chemicals from one beaker into another in his lab and he has one of those old Universal monsters, Kenneth Strickfadden electrical devices in his laboratory... so, a typical hospital set up then. Seriously, how are people supposed to take this credibly in the 1960s?

In these scenes, Carradine explains how Corey was a soldier turned into a vegetable by shrapnel damage to his brain in the Vietnam war and, to save his life, he tried out his new invention, an electronic component which he implanted into his brain to give him a proper life again... the downside of which is his violent psychopathic tendencies. Benson’s character is not sympathetic to him but at least, in this version of the movie, he knows what he’s dealing with (yeah, because this gels really well with the jewel heist plot, right?) and we even get a flashback in the second sequence showing Corey on the lab table with his brain being reactivated via an electrical current in a manner not too dissimilar to what you would get in many a mad scientist movie.

The third insert scene with Carradine also features Morton as Corey, who now pays a visit to the doctor right after he kills the night club girl... where he also ends up killing Carradine. All the rest of the scenes in the movie play out exactly as they did in the original and those are the only inserts which I could detect in this new, hybrid version. It doesn’t play nearly half as well with these insert scenes but, heck, they got their slightly science fiction toned movie, I guess.

But it doesn’t stop there...

Blood of Ghastly Horror
(aka The Man With The Synthetic Brain)

Blood Of Ghastly Horror starts off as a completely different film. After a typical ‘horror movie’ style opening credits sequence, we are right away treated to a new framing story where a yellowy green faced zombie is on the loose in the streets, killing various people by... well, not by the traditional zombie way but by strangling them. This makes me think that the IMDB date on this one is closer to the truth because the Severin date would place it after the influence of George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and there is no flesh eating going on here. I really don’t know and I wish there was a book on the director still in print so I could check on these things.

Anyhow... two women, a man and two cops are ‘strangled up good’ by the zombie and the comical expression on the face of the first woman killed is a sight to behold. They might as well have just said “cross your eyes in a whacky manner and stick your tongue out”... because that's exactly what they got. The deaths are seriously lacking any credibility here.

Then we cut to two police officers in their office in the homicide division. Alas, their office in ‘homicide’ just seems to be two desks plonked down in a nice quiet apartment in a tower block but, hey, what do I know about the working methods of the police? After receiving a note (written ‘cut and paste’ ransom note style, for no real apparent reason) reading “All will die for Corey”, accompanied by the severed head of their zombie slain colleague in a box, one of the cops tells the other about “the Corey case’ from a few years back. Enter one of many truncated scenes from the previous versions of the film (minus the Go Go Dancing but still including all the added John Carradine inserts) which serve as multiscene flashbacks to the new, ‘real’ story. These inserts pop up five or six times around the new narrative and I guess the ‘flashbacks’ take up at least half the running time of the movie.

Then Al Adamson’s wife, Regina Carrol playing the daughter of the dead Dr. Vanard (John Carradine), turns up to talk to the detectives to coincidentally tell them about a disembodied voodoo voice she has been hearing in her apartment in the few days she has been vacationing in America before returning to France. This puts them on the alert to watch out for her and enables them to, eventually, come to her rescue after she is kidnapped by the father of the original Corey character... you know, the psycho who dies in all three released versions of the film? Well, anyway, dad’s been using his pet zombie, which he made from his studies in voodoo medicine, to ‘revenge kill’ all the people responsible for his son’s death. At this point, I should probably point out that absolutely nobody killed by the zombie in the movie bears any resemblance to anybody in the original film... but why let that get in the way of a terrible plot device, I guess. So, in a fairly creative moment where Adamson keeps zooming away from his wife’s face and defocusing, cutting shot and applying a new layer of make-up before refocussing for the zoom in (stop and repeat three or four times), Corey’s mad voodoo scientist dad turns Ms. Carrol into a zombie but, luckily, she manages to retain her human senses long enough to grab the red potion to change her back before the second policeman (his partner is strangled by the other zombie), turns up to rescue her.

Lucky the vengeful father told her all about ‘the red liquid’, in between telling her more of the back story of the character of his son, of course (cue another long ‘flashback’ sequence from the end of the previous two versions of the movie).

And that’s that and, frankly, it’s a mixed bag. None of the insert footage matches up with the style of the former movie and, presumably, Zsigmond wasn’t around to work his magic with the camera in the subsequent versions. Similarly, the horror story scenes in this third version employ a different composer with a completely different feel to the light, jazzy heist and go-go music of the scenes from the original picture. Overall I’d say that the two later versions are just silly, bad movies more reminiscent of the Adamson I know from such movies as The Female Bunch (reviewed here) and Dracula VS Frankenstein (reviewed here). The original release version, however, Psycho-A-Go-Go, held my interest more and I kinda, against my expectations, had a really good time with it. So, take your pick I’d say but, thankfully, Severin have done what they can to preserve the history of this film(s) and, yeah, their boxed edition is really living up to my tentative expectations of it so far. Time will tell, I guess, if it continues.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Godzilla VS Kong




Kaiju KO

Godzilla VS Kong
USA/Australia/Canada/India 2021
Directed by Adam Wingard
Warner Brothers


Warning: This review will have kaiju sized spoilers.

Oof! Godzilla VS Kong is something I’d been looking forward to for a while. The fourth in the new US Monsterverse movies and following on from the two good films in the series, Kong: Skull Island (reviewed here) and Godzilla: King Of The Monsters (reviewed here), I was probably expecting a lot more from it than it could maybe, in hindsight, have credibly delivered. Also, I’ve quite liked some of director Adam Wingard’s previous movies and, although I think it’s a bigger film than he’s used to heading up... I had a lot of confidence in him on this.

And I can certainly confirm that the film looks really nice and has some beautiful, bright colours and lots of ‘monster smack’ carnage on show. It also has returning performers from one of the previous installments in the form of  Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler reprising their roles from Godzilla - King Of The Monsters. They are joined by some equally cool people such as Alexander Skarsgård as a good guy scientist and one of my favourite modern actresses, Rebecca Hall. And it even has the return of one of my favourite, iconic kaiju characters who tends to turn up from time to time in the Godzilla movies over the years, Mecha-Godzilla. So, yeah, I should have probably got a lot more out of this than I did. It looks great, has lots of explosions and punching of things and has great actors delivering the lines. Terrible nonsense lines though so, that doesn’t help things along, to start with.

I think my biggest complaint after seeing it is that I just didn’t understand what the heck this movie was about at all. Now it doesn’t help I was being hit by ‘buffering’ every minute or so for a while (I don’t know why streaming is so popular in the UK when our internet infrastructure is so terrible trying to handle anything remotely HD) and I’m sure I would have responded to this much better if I’d seen it in a proper cinema (the only way a movie should be watched the first time)... but I’m not sure anything would have helped me comprehend the plot to this film, which re-positions Godzilla as the bad guy and then, at the end, says it’s alright because he was just attacking ‘company x’ because they were doing bad things. Nope. He was killing innocent people and destroying cities in the process and that’s not a cool look... Gojira was definitely back to his old 1954 self as far as I’m concerned. And the general comments shouted by the rest of the family as we were watching, echoing mine such as... “What’s going on?”, “What just happened?”, “Was there two of him in that shot... how?”, “Is someone going to come and explain why they’re doing this and what this means?”... well, I think they speak for themselves.

I know that, for some reason I couldn’t figure out, people needed to get Kong to get them to the centre of the Earth (you know, the old hollow Earth theory again) but something to do with the gravity shift was a danger but... it’s okay because Kong was with them and... sorry, what? And a ludicrous subplot that re-introduced a less than interesting redesign of Mecha-Godzilla when, frankly, after we saw a giant mechanical eyeball near the start of the movie, we really didn’t need it spelled out. And no Charles Dance in sight? We saw him as the main villain making off with a dead Ghidorah head in the post-credits of the last movie but here, the head is back but the villain isn’t. Like he just disappeared into the ether.

But we do have the Ghidorah head... now a skull. Because obviously, a human mind needs to make a connection with a Ghidorah head to be able to control the man-made Mecha-Godzilla right? I mean, what? Just what? And then, when the human brain is destroyed, this makes Mecha-G go off into its own rampage... why? Lots of whys and whats here because... I’m sorry but this movie’s plot is just absolute twaddle. And don’t get me started on how it’s set just a couple of years in our future but there’s no mention made of the Coronavirus. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be around for a while and it seems kinda stupid that Hollywood would think we would forget about that. Nobody is masking up in this film, for sure.

Also, I know the director and composer are probably huge fans of the original films in the respective franchises but, I felt the whole thing played out with a lot less respect than either monster deserved. Junkie XL’s score has one, possibly accidental, similarity to Ifukube’s five note power theme for The Big G which I noticed in one action scene and which I suspect was just serendipitous. The previous score by the great Bear McCreary was loaded with musical references to a whole host of Toho monster themes giving the leitmotifs associated with them their due in a fan pleasing score that really served the movie well. This new score is appropriate to the action but just feels like a wasted opportunity and gives no real reference to Ifukube, Sato, Koseki or even Max Steiner in its make up. It’s just another score which could have been ‘anything appropriate’ when it’s been demonstrated in the last film that a good, striking, use of the previous material as musical building blocks can be carried out very well. I felt like this was a major step backwards for these movies and it’s now the fourth in a series which, like the previous three, has absolutely no musical continuity with any of the others. It’s just egos doing their own thing when they could have served a more functional purpose for the good of the whole canon of works.

And, by the way, King Kong has been around since 1933 whereas Godzilla is a relatively new character from 1954. Show some respect... there’s no way, despite Kong being stripped of his royal nomenclature for these movies, that Godzilla would beat him to near death. Kong's more dexterous. It just beggars belief. And, although the shout out to certain other Kong and kaiju movies where human intervention is necessary to restart (or in some films replace) a slowing heart is appreciated, the circumstances which took us to that point felt somehow unacceptable to me.

And so there you have it. Godzilla VS Kong looks great, has made huge gains at the box office but, sadly, under all the hullabaloo it’s just an empty and somehow inarticulate shell of a movie masquerading as something much bigger than it actually is. I can enjoy the moments of monster carnage and will probably do so again on Blu Ray but, as a consequential entry in the entire body of work of both the King Kong and Godzilla franchises, it leaves no mark and is, perhaps, best left forgotten. I was, at the end of the last picture, looking forward to this franchise continuing but now I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Everything seems to be thrown away and the dots that are meant join the films together make a tenuous and unnecessary trail at best. I can’t recommend this one, to be honest.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Red Sparrow




Colour Scheming

Red Sparrow
by Jason Matthews
Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781471166129


Warning: Some very minor spoilers for
both this novel and the movie version.


I already reviewed the movie version of Red Sparrow in 2018 (you can read that here) so I won’t be getting into the general story arc again when it comes to taking a look at the original novel on which it was based. In that review I think I mentioned I wanted to read the books at some point so I will take the time out here to thank Reuben and his lovely wife @ClareVP for gifting this to me at Christmas, displaying a rare form of telepathy in the process.

Red Sparrow is the first in a trilogy of novels written by ex-CIA agent Jason Mathews, about a Russian double agent called Dominika Egorova. She is not the famed ballet dancer she is in the movie version but a successful ballet school student (which makes a hell of a lot more sense in terms of her future career arc, to be honest) and she gets recruited against her will by her uncle, taking advantage of a double misfortune, into the Russian intelligence agency. Specifically she is retrained at the Red Sparrow school in sexual spy techniques before being put into the field and, from then on, getting involved with an American agent in a professional and not so professional capacity. And that’s, as I said, about as much of the general arc as I’m going to reveal here. The rest of the review is going to be about some of the specific changes, which are many, from the novel to the screen version and why, ultimately, as good as the movie version is (and in improving on it in a certain dramatic capacity), why the novel is so much better, although at this point I think I can live with it better if I think of them as separate entities (like the little or no relation the movie version of Modesty Blaise bears to either the original newspaper strips or novels).

Now then, this is not the absolute best spy novel I’ve read by a long chalk... Adam Hall’s series of Quiller novels will always be the coldest and coolest espionage thrillers around for the cloak and dagger stuff. However, this one is pretty amazing and, while it does the whole Hall, Le Carre, Deighton thing of highlighting the ‘trade craft’ of a spy out in the field, as Matthews refers to it, it does so with a much more modern and light hearted approach... at least in terms of the American characters in the novel. I can only assume that this is more up to date in terms of the attitudes and humour now at large in the field and I find it interesting to still note the contrast between the ‘kids’ in the CIA etc and the prevalent, stereotypical mental attitudes of most of the Russian agents in the story.

One of the big things here, which is absent from the movie and which makes more sense in terms of why Dominika is so good in the field and also at second guessing the intentions of those superiors putting her in harms way and using her as a pawn (something which, to be fair, the Americans also do), is the fact that she has what I personally would call... superpowers. That is to say, she’s a synesthete. She has a truly overpoweringly clear synaesthetic response to all the people she meets. So she knows when they’re in work mode, if they’re lying, if they’re hiding that they’re angry or plotting something counter to what they’re saying, because she can see it in the colours that float around them as they speak. So she knows if a person is being completely honest and truthful to her, for example, because they have a strong purple halo around them. When someone is green or yellow, things might not be so good and she needs to be on high alert and watch what she says. Which is, of course, very handy because she knows how insubordinate she can be around various people, what she can get away with and so on. It’s a nice touch and, while it takes the novels slightly out of the realm of normal cold war fiction, it elevates things and gives them a new slant. I appreciated this aspect to the character and thought they could maybe have included it in the movie adaptation.

Other, more puzzling additions to the film version tend to be the inclusion of more action scenes and much more dramatic, hard hitting set pieces than realised in the book. For example, there’s no scene where she gets her revenge on a girl and her lover for ruining her career by half killing them with her crutch. Instead, the revenge is much more subtle and less dramatic but, in the book it makes sense because you are privy to all her thoughts and it seems much more of a big deal than it might have done in a visual medium, where the film short cuts that for the sake of brevity and shows her ruthlessness at the same time.

Similarly, the ‘willing rape versus power play’ scene in the Sparrow school doesn’t exist in the novel (where I would have thought something like that is not what a cautious Hollywood, with their eye on the box office, would make up). Admittedly, there are other stronger elements but they are more abstract in the way they are described and there’s a good deal of stuff that goes on here which didn’t make it into the movie... and which all helps shape the character in the book. Even the torture scene where she has to be complicit in torturing her lover for show for a while is absent in the book so, yeah, Hollywood surprised me with their version. It’s not that the novel isn’t hard hitting though, it’s just that it chooses to build up to things in a more subtle way, allowing the weight of the history of situations to reveal the ultimate betrayals and gut punches rather than hit you over the head with them. I think both the writer of the novel and the writers of the film made the right choices for their respective mediums and I don’t think I can fault either one too much.

What I can fault is, with all the many changes and expected exclusions in the movie version from the source novel, that the ending and its implication is so totally different in the filmed version. Okay, so there is a prisoner exchange scene at the end of the novel which ends pretty much the same way as it does in the book but... yeah, I’m not going to tell you which two prisoners are being exchanged here because, it’s not the same as the film and hobbles the future of the filmed versions in certain respects. Also, there’s a big aspect of the ending of the movie version which just doesn’t happen and, although I suspect Mathews is leading up to something similar in book two or three, I think Hollywood would be unable to film them because of maybe jumping the gun and finishing the trilogy off at the end of the first movie, in some ways. So, like the Jason Bourne films, they’d have to just buy the titles and do their own things with them for future installments. Not that I expect there to be any more movies as, ironically, although there are more stylised and obvious action sequences in the film, I don’t think there was nearly enough action for the segment of the audience that the box office needed to reach. Which is a shame because, novel aside, it was a pretty good movie.

And that’s me done on Red Sparrow. I was surprised about what did and didn’t make it into the movie version from this book but this original novel has a gravitas all its own which maybe hits harder because, not in spite, of the lighter tone of the characters in it. Also, if you are into food, then the writer does a nice thing where, in all but one chapter (I won’t give away which one), he inserts a recipe at the end in a little box, relating to something specifically eaten by one of the characters in that particular chapter. So, if you want to go the whole hog and eat your way through the novel then, that might be a thing food people might want to try. Would make a good vlog project for someone, I reckon. Either way though, if you like spy novels which acknowledge the fact that the cold war never ended and which are, as much as the author could probably get away with, bang up to date in terms of spycraft, then Red Sparrow is definitely one to read. I'm definitely planning on picking up the other books in the series at some point in the near future.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Rollerball

 


The Brave And The Rolled

Rollerballl
UK/Canada/USA 1975
Directed by Norman Jewison

Rollerballl
USA/Germany/Japan 2002
Directed by John McTiernan
German Ultimate Edition Blu Ray/UHD Zone B


Warning: Some spoilers.

So I wanted to see both versions of Rollerball again in some nice Blu Ray editions and I managed to get a used/very good and complete version of the wonderful German Ultimate 5 Disc Edition of the films, with oodles of extras, not to mention multiple booklets, posters, lobby cards and a limited edition certificate, for roughly the price of what it would have cost to buy the two films separately at full price elsewhere. Which I thought was a good deal and, also, I’d have to say I agree with a lot of people who reviewed this edition or did unboxing videos that, yeah, it’s pretty much one of the nicest Blu Ray box sets I’ve ever seen. A big, orange cloth bound thing with embossed black vinyl (or some such material) on it. Truly a beautiful objet d'art of the golden age of Blu Ray. I’m really pleased to have this one.

I also, actually, quickly read the original seven page short story, Roller Ball Murder, before I set out to write this review, so I could see where these films are coming from. This was written by William Harrison who also wrote the screenplay of the first movie, expanding out his ideas of the original account but also giving the movie a lot more of an interesting through line in terms of just what the story is about, I feel. Also, I wanted to highlight that, although the ‘almost a prequel’ reboot of the 2002 version changed things quite a lot, it still retained one of the basic premises of the plot, the whole ‘bread and circuses’ mentality of the people in control. The difference being that, in the first film, it’s used solely to pacify the global society of the future whereas, in the second, it’s being used to gain a market share in the ratings so a much smaller group of thuggish ‘businessmen’ can profit from the financial rewards. I should probably mention here that, although the first version is a classic and my personal favourite of the two, I also loved the second go around and I think it’s been unfairly treated from when it first came out and has not been re-evaluated in the way I hoped it would (I think I saw it about three times on its initial cinema run).

The original movie is set in what was then the not too distant future of... 2018. It’s got a very strong start with an empty Rollerball rink, circular in this version, which is in half darkness while Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor plays out over the credits while the crew of technicians start to ready the arena for the upcoming game and the audience and players begin to turn up. Then, after the playing of the ‘corporate anthem’ where the players stand to attention, we are pitched straight into the first of the three ‘action-game’ scenes of the movie. We have a brilliant James Caan as main protagonist and Rollerball champion Jonathan E, the wonderful John Beck as his friend and fellow player Moonpie and John Houseman as the owner of the team, corporation man Bartholomew. We also have a wonderful supporting cast such as Maud Adams as Jonathan E’s ex-wife (who he is hankering after), Pamela Hensley as one of the many ‘girls’ provided for short periods to the top players as their ‘live in’ sexual companion (think of the ‘furniture’ women of the rich and powerful in Soylent Green) and also a couple of very familiar character actors in the forms of Shane Rimmer and Burt Kwouk.

The opening game sets up the violent sport where steel balls fired onto the pitch at speeds of 200mph (so you don’t catch them until they’ve lost a little speed or they’ll rip your arm off) and two teams, consisting of a number of roller skaters and three motorbike riders each, try to take possession of the ball to score points in the special goal stations, bashing up opposing players as best they can. It’s a violent sport and a violent film. And, when I say that, I don’t mean to say that it’s really in any way gory because, well, it’s not really. But it isn’t comic book violence either... it’s violence with consequence and despite the minimal amount of gore it feels brutal and a much more adult take on the act of violence. Rollerball belongs to a special subset of early 1970s science fiction films which started to get made with prevalent adult attitudes before Star Wars came along and changed both the style and the audiences these things were pitched at. Films like Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, The Ultimate Warrior, Westworld, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

The music is important in its absence because there’s not much in it and apart from one ‘party scene’, it’s all classical music when it is used. Unlike the reboot, the games themselves are left unscored and I think it works really well because the director uses the sound design, such as the roar of the crowd and the chaos of the game... to highlight certain moments. For instance, he’ll dial the noisy, ambient sound of the track right down in volume to make a point of a specific moment sometimes and, it almost acts in a similar way to one of the functions of film music... although there are few movies which can really get away with this. He also uses the music to ‘bookend in’ certain sections of the movie. So, for instance, once the first game is played we have a debriefing of the men by Bartholomew in the changing room and then Jonathan E and Moonpie going through hordes of cheering fans as they go home. It’s only then that we get a withheld, finishing burst of the Bach music from before the game to round the scene off, as if to say to the audience that the first, introductory section is now over and now you can find out what the film is really about.

What it is about is the concept that many decades ago there were the ‘corporate wars’ and the world is now run by one big corporation. This corporation has managed to eradicate the history of the planet by destroying all books and having their historical secrets held by computers only the privileged (aka rich corporate men) can access and even that information is mostly classified. When Jonathan E tries to find some information about the history of these dark times so he can figure out what is going on with all the interest in him (I’ll get to it in a minute), the computer refuses and makes the human curator of the big computer of mankind’s knowledge, Ralph Richardson, very angry in the process. Almost as angry as he is from finding out that the computer has also ‘accidentally’ wiped out all knowledge of the 13th Century.

We have a massive population where the rich few can have wild parties and, in a very telling scene, go out and burn trees with futuristic laser guns as a drunken leisure pursuit, showing they have absolutely no empathy with the planet they live on, while the people running the planet give them their bread and circuses game of the violent outlet they need... Rollerball. This is a game designed to keep people watching and to see the hopelessness of free, individual expression and thinking and... here’s where Jonathan E’s problems begin. And also where Caan does an amazing job because he slowly transforms from brutal, violent sports player to a thinking, human soul with a conscience... unlike the version of the character in the original short story, it has to be said.

And this is because the corporation heads, including Bartholomew, want Jonathan E to retire. He doesn’t come to the realisation of why until much later but it’s because Jonathan has become bigger than the sport he is playing. A folk hero who people cheer and so, the corporation puts a special multiscreen TV show on Jonathan on air in which he’s supposed to announce his retirement (all the people of the future have  a multiscreen TV set up of simultaneous broadcast of screens augmenting each other, one big screen and three smaller ones above it). However, Jonathan is reluctant to and so the company change the rules on the next game to give it limited substitutions and no penalties, in the hopes that somebody will put Jonathan E out of action in the arena (and they get close). Instead, on the second of the three big matches shown in the film, Moonpie gets seriously wounded and ends up brain dead on a respirator. When Jonathan refuses to sign a waiver to take him off life support, which is sometime after the ‘accident’ has happened, we get a shot of the fading sequence of lights used in the game to denote the loss of a player from the field as a visual metaphor to make clear to the audience that, although technically still alive, another player has been sacrificed to the corporation.

There’s a nice moment or two where we see unruly hooliganism from the spectators as they get worked up by violence and the unswerving loyalty to their favourite players in the sport and, although it’s barely touched upon, it is there and it does kind of show exactly the kind of thing the corporation are working hard to avoid but, in some ways, exacerbating in their constant rule changes to make sure nobody stays in the sport long enough to get good at it and become a figure of inspiration.

And the film meanders along (in the best way) with beautiful shot compositions and smooth, flowing camera movement, where Jewison uses big blocks of screen and verticals to distribute the actors in space, until we get to the last game where, just like the last game in the 2002 version, the rules are changed so that there are absolutely no penalties, no substitutions (so when a team loses a player then that’s it, they’re a player down each time) and more or less no time limits.. which means that eventually, everybody in that game will be injured or killed until you’re down to one or two people. Of course, Jonathan ends up as the only man standing and, after his battered body walks up to the goal station and plonks the ball in, demonstrating that he’s survived and is effectively bigger than the system, the crowd start to chant his name and we are left with a chilling freeze frame of him rollerskating around the arena as the end credits roll to a reprise of the Bach music. It’s a very seventies ending but also, like a lot of those, a very effective and powerful one. A clever slice of science fiction which is deservedly a classic.

And then we have the attempted reboot.

Now, I have to say, it’s not the masterpiece that the original movie was but, that’s okay, it’s still an interesting movie and I can tell you it works really well when seen on a big cinema screen. The main difference is director John McTiernan is now aiming for a different aged audience. The first Rollerball still had quite an adult audience and the expected response was therefore a more sophisticated one. This second version needs everything to be over explained and underlined more but, it’s still quite a cool movie in many ways.

This one is set in the ‘near future’ and stars Chris Klein as main protagonist Jonathan Cross and, after we see him take part in an illegal downhill racer style competition, his friend Marcus, played by L. L. Cool J, offers to have him join him in Russia to get in on the ground level of a new game developing called Rollerball, on which people are betting huge amounts of money and which is a ‘people’s sport’, starting in the local mining town. So instead of a historical corporation, it’s basically the Russian mafia, headed by Jean Reno as Alexis Petrovich, who are trying to get their television ratings higher from the game to get more money. Caught in the middle are Jonathan, Marcus and Jonathan’s biker player girlfriend Aurora, played by Rebecca Romijn.

Another important character is the US commentator played by... I’m sorry, I can’t find him on the IMDB listing for this movie. He looks a little like John Candy but I know it isn’t him and he’s actually an interesting character because he’s our way in to the emotional tone of the constant rule changes which the owners are coming up with to take out the players... not for the suppression of individuality as in the first version but, because they soon realise the more violent and fatal the game is, the higher the ratings. So various manufactured accidents start to happen. There’s a great moment where Cross realises his head is on the chopping block, so to speak, when he sees five cameras are trained on him in the arena, tipping him off to duck before he get taken out.

Klein is excellent as Jonathan Cross although, it has to be said, I’ve always thought that he was just imitating Keanu Reeves in this movie. As it happens, I just read as I was writing this that Keanu Reeves was originally wanted to head up this movie. So it’s like the director tried to clone him and came up with Klein. He does do a good job here, though.   

And, yeah, it’s a choppy film. This is one of those movies where the shots are very short but, because it’s emulating what you see on TV a lot of the time, this kinda works to its advantage. In fact, there are various multimedia shot choices edited in and out rapidly as the show progresses, where the quality of the image will just change as it uses things like broadcast TV transmissions of the game and even security camera footage from scene to scene. We’re living in the time of ‘the media is the message’ and the film does tend to embrace that to some extent. And, another shout out to the ‘MTV generation’ is the fact that these incredibly violent games, played on a much more elaborate figure 8/infinity loop track and with added ramps, have bands playing live music in the stadium for the crowds as the action unfolds.

The soundtrack itself has one or two nice songs on it and also a brilliant score from Eric Serra, who composed music for quite a lot of Luc Besson’s movies back in the day (and back again with him recently). It’s not as hard hitting as the original and it also has a lot more elaborate team costumes which, is kinda what you’d expect from the hoopla surrounding these kinds of events with teens these days. It also has these long catcher’s poles which are actually mentioned in the original short story but which never made it into the first movie.

Jean Reno’s a bit over the top but, you know, that’s okay... he’s Jean Reno and he’s meant to be. He makes a really good villain. The whole ensemble cast is pretty good on this actually but, like I said earlier, it’s very much a ‘cinema experience’ kind of movie rather than a home video set up sort of film. I don’t have much more to say about it other than what I’ve already covered... it’s not as subtle and far from challenging material but it’s big and loud and the many hand held camera shots utilised throughout don’t really harm the experience. A nice attempt and doing something slightly different with the material and it’s a shame it’s not better recognised, I think. It’s not essential viewing like the first Rollerball but, if you’ve seen that then maybe don’t be afraid to give this one a visit sometime, you might actually like it. I still do.